Book review

Art: A History of Changing Style by Sara Cornell
Published by Phaidon Press, 1983.

Reviewed by ANDREW BOGLE

The flyleaf of this chunky book tells us it was the author's response to the lack of a suitable art history textbook for young people. I don't know that I would accept that, prior to this publication, there were no readable textbooks of compatible scope. Still, this new history is a welcome addition to existing literature on the subject. It's subtitled A History of Changing Style. It is restricted to Western art - Eastern art is referred to only so far as it has influenced the Western, but that can be explained in terms of the bias in school syllabuses.

This book spans almost five thousand years, beginning with the Egyptians and ending with a deceptively life-like sculpture by Duane Hanson of a paunchy middle-aged American Couple weighted down with shopping bags - a far cry from sedate Mycerinus and Queen Khamerernebty, chipped from schist, in the opening chapter. The trip from Giza to the O.K. Harris Gallery in New York progresses at a jaunty pace. The publishers stress it's readability and it measures up to the claim. Sara Cornell brings to her task the experience of teaching English and art history in private and public schools in America.

There are seventeen chapters preceded by a good concise introduction. The chapters are grouped in five parts: The Ancient World, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance; The Romantics, The Modern World. Each chapter is broken up into subchapters under headings such as Medieval Mania; Breaking the Rules of Perspective; The Revolt Against Sham: Looking Backwards. These subchapters each run to an average of two pages, comprising easily-digestible portions. And the text is well-leavened with illustrations, 550 in all - of which 178 are in colour.

The illustrations are in a variety of sizes, from matchbox size to double page spreads. The choice of works illustrated is good, although the use of Jean Arp's Squares arranged according to the Laws of Chance as an example of Dada's use of chance is a little unfortunate. One glance at the composition is enough to convince anyone that the arrangement is not fortuitous. And in fact, when challenged, Arp confessed that chance was only the point of departure.

Over-all the reproductions are of a high quality. A few are a bit grey but only William Blake, on page 314, is done an injustice. Not only is his engraving from the Book of Job reproduced too small, with the result that the detail has clogged up, but, horror of horrors, it's described as an etching. If it were not for the fact that Blake's Job illustrations are one of the greatest achievements of the engraver's art, the error would be petty.

My only criticisms of the design are the way a number of the illustrations have been pushed right into the fold of the page so that one constantly wonders whether the edge of a picture is partially obscured by the binding; and the way some of the illustrations straddle two pages. The latter awkwardness can be excused in terms of the need to keep illustrations close to the related portion of text. The publishers are to be commended for illustrating all works discussed: but there is no need to jam illustrations hard up against the binding.

Cornell concentrates her story on the three arts - painting, sculpture and architecture, with occasional references to printmaking in the cases of Pollaiuolo, Dürer, Piranesi and William Blake. But she frequently points our relations between these and other arts in an illuminating way. For example:
Called Rococo after the rocailles, or shells and pebbles used to create artificial grottos, the decorative style was characterised by a curling line that turns back on itself in a graceful arabesque . . In its sophisticated wit, Rococo art also paral;led literature, particularly the writings of the 'Augustan' age in England . . . Pope's verses often perform the graceful Rococo arabesque of a line curling back on itself: his satirical Rape of the Lock is a mock epic actually on the subject of a curl.

But more importantly Cornell relates stylist changes to contemporary religious, political and economic conditions. To help these relations she provides a series of chronological charts matching individual works of art with historical events. One can see quite clearly that Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera follows hot on the heels of Pope's Rape of the Lock which I think says a lot. The relationship between Stalin's death in 1953 and the advent of Op Art, C.1952 is compelling for its incongruity. She also sprinkles her text with extracts from the writings of artists, which makes it more colourful. But I am sure Mr Fuseli would rather rate as a painter than a word-monger.

To sum up, this is a good general introduction to the history of Western art. If one wants to delve deeper there is a comprehensive bibliography that is well-laid out. The type of reader has been clearly identified and the style of writing adjusted to suit. Above all, it's readable It's faults some of which I have mentioned above, are comparatively minor. Over-all it is a useful; well-illustrated text that will prove invaluable to teachers , students and the general public wanting to know what conditions have given rise to the evolution of style in five thousand years of Western art.